Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #3

Silver Bullets

Jono Byrne
Aug 9, 2017

Read episodes #1 and #2


The prologue

In episode #2 of Up Shit Creek, I described how I’d failed to ask obvious questions about over-ambitious ‘innovation’ in one of Team GB’s Olympic teams.

Fearing financial insecurity, I became a compliant cog in a machine designed to extract ‘performance’ from a group of athletes.

Here, I’ll start asking the question “what would I do differently if I was in the same situation again?”.

Hopefully the answers will help you to avoid your own personal ‘Shit Creek’.

Stronger and more sustainable

While at UK Sport, I’d observed something interesting. A clue that, in hindsight, might have helped me to understand the pressure that some of the actors in my story were under.

Setting a deliberately ‘audacious goal’, UK Sport’s leaders focused everyone’s attention on a highly ambitious Rio 2016 medal target.

To win an ever greater quantity of Olympic medals, more than Team GB had ever achieved before.

The stated ‘vision’ was “a stronger and more sustainable high performance system”. A laudable aim that anyone can support.

But was that message drowned out by the deafening roar of an ‘audacious’ medal target?

Is a record breaking medal-haul the only viable indicator of a “stronger and more sustainable high performance system”?

In the team I worked with, I didn’t hear conversations about making the programme “stronger and more sustainable”.

Almost every conversation was about ‘performance’.

The performance of the athletes that is.

Not the performance of the system around them.

Questions of perspective

A tired cliche in the UK’s performance sport system is to say “[Person X]doesn’t get performance”.

I challenge that view. Hard.

As we’ve seen this week at London’s World Athletics Championship, the performances of our athletes come under microscopic and highly personal scrutiny.

That’s an easy perspective to take. To suggest that what’s needed is to ‘fix’ the athletes. To seek the ‘silver bullets’ to deliver immediate medal success.

It’s far harder to look at the bigger picture. To ask “how is the systemproducing these outcomes?”.

In examining the state of athletics in Britain today, respected coach Malcolm Arnold has asked such difficult questions.

“If you look at the neglect of development of athletes, the neglect of development of coaches… people are asking if it’s a showbusiness company or something that develops athletes”

Malcolm’s perspective comes from the hard-won wisdom of a vastly experienced front line coach.

A macroscopic view of athlete performance. A perspective that demands attention to what matters in making a “stronger and sustainable high performance system”.

The lessons

We’d embarked on a massive programme of technology investment.

Wholesale improvements in the ability to collect and analyse complicated performance data. Advanced manufacturing techniques to build superior racing equipment.

These were our silver bullets. Magic ‘quick fixes’ that had apparently worked before in other multi-medal winning Team GB sports.

Shortcuts designed to extract the maximum ‘performance’ from a small group of elite athletes.

Shortcuts designed by scientists and engineers, taking a microscopic view of what matters in sport.

But when you’re consumed with the small details, lost in the pursuit of ‘marginal gains’, you can lose sight of what really matters.

The Team GB medal target for Rio was presented as ‘audacious’.

But was it really, like me, just a little bit cowardly?

Afraid of asking the difficult questions.

Afraid of asking “what really matters here?”.

Afraid of the real hard work. Designing more sophisticated indicators of a healthy, productive environment that could produce sporting excellence.

Afraid of the difficult job of creating a “stronger and more sustainable high performance system”.

Our silver bullets didn’t fire us towards gold medals.

They led us directly up Shit Creek, and we took the hopes and dreams of athletes with us.

We’re approaching the rapids… cling on for dear life.

Read episode #4